Studio North marks 10 years of student filmmaking

A Studio North crew crowded around the camera’s monitor
A Studio North crew crowded around the camera’s monitor

Johns Hopkins’ student-run film and media production company hosts its anniversary gala at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theatre on April 24, complete with red carpet, cocktail attire and photos, a premiere of this year’s student-directed shorts, and-of course-popcorn

The night before she began filming her original short drama Scars, Charlotte Johnson, A&S ’16, was so petrified that her roommate found her huddled on their couch in dread at 1 a.m. "I was terrified I was going to mess it up," Johnson remembers nine years later. "I was in charge, and it was the most intense imposter syndrome: I cannot believe that tomorrow I have to show up and do this."

She did show up and direct her short, which was a project of Johns Hopkins’ student-run film and media production company, Studio North. Since then, she’s shown up as an L.A.-based writer on shows including NBC’s Perfect Harmony, HBO Max’s Minx, CBS’s Life in Pieces, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Audible project Letters from Camp."

But her original short film, and Studio North overall, Johnson reflects, were essential bridges from her early fears to the success she enjoys today. She still gets nervous sometimes as her career takes her to new and higher levels, but it’s no longer sheer terror.

"Obviously that was not a necessary reaction, but it clearly was an important experience I had to have," she says. "It allowed me to get so much fear out of my system, and it allowed me to enjoy the actual process of making film or TV.

"It’s so important, having an experience that you’re really afraid of and finishing it. All of these experiences are so crucial to have within the context of a very safe framework, knowing that it’s all going to be OK because you have wonderful people who can support you."

Studio North-based at the JHU-MICA Film Centre and the Homewood campus-was just in its second year back when Johnson directed her short, but now it’s 10 years old and preparing to celebrate in style. The company will host its anniversary gala at Baltimore’s historic Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theatre on Wednesday, April 24, complete with red carpet, cocktail attire and photos, a premiere of this year’s student-directed shorts, and-of course-popcorn. Free and open to the public, the gala begins at 6:30 p.m.

Studio North was born in 2014, when Meredith Ward, A&S ’03, now senior lecturer in the Program in Film and Media Studies, and a focus group of undergraduates created it to give students the large-scale, full-set experience of a big narrative film production. Started with a $20,000 philanthropic gift and sustained through a continuous search for funding, it was designed to mimic the structure of a fully functional film production company, professionalizing students by teaching them how to not only make films, but also run such a company.

In a highly competitive process, upper-level students who have gained filmmaking experience in their courses and by working on other Studio North films pitch their ideas for a short film or web series to the company’s student board, which offers two grants per year at $2,000 each. The entire process is student-led: Students decide the grants, budget the films, plan the equipment list, advise on script and story, help cast, and form skilled crews to shoot the projects, so students gain experience with directing, producing, cinematography, lighting, sound mixing, editing, and more. Directors round up fellow students as actors and crew members, scout locations, and often hire professionals for color correction and sound mixing. By the end of the year, filmmakers have a new bank of skills, along with a short narrative film or series ready for the company’s annual premiere and to send out to graduate schools and film festivals, where they often meet with success.

"It’s not just that you’re getting funding; it’s that you’re getting the resources of Studio North to help you, so you’ve got a support system for the whole process," Ward says. "It gives them that familiarity. You learn the language and you learn the culture, in a very friendly way."

That experiential learning-real, practical experience-comes in handy when graduates make the leap to industry, where the learning curve can be steep and unforgiving. The board doesn’t just give pitches a thumbs up or down; unlike the film industry, they explain their reasoning, and students continue to receive feedback throughout the filming and post-production process. Someone who’s already learned how large-scale movies are made as a grip or a gaffer or an assistant director is better able to hit the ground running.

"The joy of it is that it works," Ward says of the 25 filmmakers the program has supported over the years. Alums have gone on to film studies programs at top universities and to earn MFAs in producing, cinematography, and screenwriting at top film schools. Some serve as media industry executives and staff writers on major television shows; write and produce independent films; create independent videography companies; work at major talent agencies; and serve in key roles at production companies. They work in sports, scripted and unscripted content, and narrative film and television production, and they continue to write, direct, and produce.

"They are funny; they are smart; they are brave," Ward says. "They have something to say and know how to say it. They are talented. I am so proud of the fact that they got their start here."

Looking back after producing his first feature film in 2023, Bobby Peretti, A&S ’18 says Studio North’s grants, gear, and crew expand what is possible for student films. "Studio North lets you get ambitious," he says. "You can swing bigger. You can take more risks. You can fail more. You can see how high a hurdle you can create for yourself, then see if you can clear it. There’s no better way for a young filmmaker to grow."

The company also helps budding filmmakers begin to figure out where they might fit into the industry. Daniel Matsumoto, A&S ’20 had done some camera work in high school, and took on roles in Studio North like assistant camera and director of photography. His senior year, he made his first and only foray into directing with his own short, It’s A Love Story.

"I had a such great time with that production; everybody was so great," Matsumoto says. "But I realized I wasn’t very good at communicating the emotional side; working with the actors wasn’t my specialty. So I really homed in on camera work."

In 2022, Matsumoto graduated from the University of Southern California with an MFA in film and television production, and returned to his first love: "camera guy." Specifically, documentaries-based in L.A., he’s currently filming one in Romania about USC students engineering solutions for Ukrainians displaced by the war, as well as a series about water issues in California. His Studio North experience was instrumental in understanding how films work, he says, and where he sees himself within them.

"Doing Studio North productions taught me in a lot of ways how to be a manager," Matsumoto says, "which is a skill that’s been necessary both in narrative and in documentary. While in Romania, we had three amazing camera crews spread out all’over the country, covering different events and aspects of the story. A large part of my job as the cinematographer was to create a unified vision so that when we put all the footage together, it felt like one cohesive film. That meant building pitch decks, coordinating equipment, and being available for the other crews when things went wrong, all skills I learned doing Studio North films. I need to be able to manage this whole crew, not just think about the image. It’s making sure that everybody knows what they need to do to get the result we want. And that was something that you can’t learn without doing a full Studio North type of production in undergrad."

While at USC, Matsumoto brought his newfound knowledge back to Studio North one more time, to serve as director of photography for a friend’s short in 2021. He got to work again with some of the students he’d brought into his own crew, and to give back to the community he says set him on his current path. And those connections endure, as he and a half dozen other Studio North alums meet up regularly in L.A. and offer one another support.

Abena Ababio, A&S ’22 describes Studio North-filled with "creative enthusiasts" with a wide variety of interests, majors, and backgrounds-as a positive and diverse community. "We learned from each other, made art with each other, and encouraged all peers-turned-family that no project is too small," she says. "Create with what you have, and have fun doing it no matter what-that’s what Studio North taught me. As someone working in the TV industry now, with projects of my own under way, all these lessons and optimism have transcended into my everyday life in the best way. Without Hopkins, and especially without Studio North, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do so."

At first, Chloe Soares, A&S ’18 felt shy and out of place when she joined Studio North. That changed when she discovered other passionate film lovers and opportunities for would-be filmmakers: "This became my community," she says. "All these kids working together to make something happen. Today, when I’m asked where I see myself in the future, my answer is always a position where I am trusted to help those around me flourish; an environment of collaboration and elevation with creative thinkers."

"Studio North showed me I had a voice and gave me the opportunity to use it," adds Soares, now a freelance producer. "I like to joke that after college I ’fell’ into production, but the truth is my career path has felt mostly straightforward, an expansion on skills in communication and leadership as well as a love for media that Studio North helped nurture. It is not incorrect to say I would not be where I am today without both Meredith Ward and Studio North. It helped to shape the direction of my life, and I am forever grateful for it."

Arts+Culture , Student Life

film and media studies , krieger school , parkway theatre